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I’ve been in the consulting business one way or another for nearly two decades now, and in that time I’ve watched a lot of people come and go. Many corporate workers look at independent consultants and think “wow, I could take my current skills and make […]

I’ve been in the consulting business one way or another for nearly two decades now, and in that time I’ve watched a lot of people come and go. Many corporate workers look at independent consultants and think “wow, I could take my current skills and make three times what I do today just by going into business for myself!” If you’re an independent, you know it’s not quite that easy: working for yourself also comes with a lot of expenses. But there is a more subtle trap that all too many professionals fall into: in a year or two, your current skills will be, if not worthless, certainly worth less than they are now.

Web workers, because of the pace of the fields we tend to be in, are perhaps more prone to this trap than other entrepreneurs. If you’re going to strike out on your own, it is critical that you have some plan for continuing your professional development. Otherwise, you’re liable to wake up some morning and discover that all of your clients have moved on to other consultants who haven’t let their skills fossilize. Here’s my own five-point plan for staying up to date:

1. Read the news. Five years ago this meant subscribing to the major trade journals in your field. These days, in software at least, I’m finding that paper isn’t worth the bother of cluttering up my mailbox. Everything I’d read in the trade journals shows up on web sites and in blogs first, and everything is in one RSS feed or another quickly. So, subscribing to a reasonable set of 15 to 30 RSS feeds in your field, and keeping up with them, will help you spot major developments and trends.

2. Learn a new skill every year. For a software developer, this means taking the time (your own time, not billable hours) to learn a new programming language each year, to the point where you can write non-trivial applications in it. For a designer, it might mean learning a new tool, or digging into a new markup language. The point is to see other ways of doing things, to get your hands dirty, and to increase your chance of saying “oh yes, I’ve worked with that” when customers come to you with requests. You might even discover a superior alternative to your current toolset.

3. Speak at a user group. You should not only be attending your local user group, you should get yourself on to the program. There are two reasons for this. First, there’s nothing like talking to your peers about some piece of technology to make you really learn that technology. Second, becoming known as a speaker is an important part of personal branding, which helps distinguish you from the pack.

4. Attend a conference. At least once a year you should get to a major conference in your field, especially if the bulk of your career is spent working with people over the web. Even if you learn nothing from the conference sessions, time spent over meals and in the halls talking with other attendees is a great way to figure out what the up and coming hot areas are.

5. Ask yourself the hard questions. Take a day off at the end of each year to take stock of your business and your career. Are you still doing the same things you were a year ago? Is demand still as high as it was? Are customers asking for things that you can’t provide? Is there new technology that you’ve been unable to deliver because you don’t understand it yet? Being honest with yourself about where you stand and where you think the market is going will put you way ahead of those who keep just doing the same things they’ve always done on autopilot.

  1. Add a 6th one: TAKE a Professional Development Program. I don’t mean the quick seminars. Those are good but it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant: you get real wet but walk away thirsty. I suggest a Dale Carnegie Course http://www.dalecarnegie.com. It’s the best investment you can make in yourself.

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  2. I’d add another one:

    Be willing to cut your rates if the job offers you professional development. I often give a starter rate to a client if I’m learning a new technology or moving into something that I’m not intimately familiar with. The client gets less expensive work, you learn something while getting paid. Everyone wins.

    Of course, make sure you can do your typical great job and that you’re clear that this is new to you and that you are giving the client a discount because of that. Smaller clients or clients that know you already tend to be the best targets for this.

    This technique also works best when the new technology is related to the old one (eg doing web development with rails as opposed to a java framework, rather than moving from database design to web design).

    A corollary to #3: write a paper. Lots of websites out there will be happy to have you author something (I’ve written for The Server Side and the Ccaps Newsletter), and sometimes they’ll even pay you for it. Writing a paper with structure and diagrams etc (larger and more defined than a blog post) requires the same kind of focus as a talk.

    I like all the other suggestions. It’s very easy to have your head down and working all the time, while not seeing the big picture.

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  3. I’m not in the IT field, so my experiences are a little different. When I was an employee, I often found myself stagnating. It was when I got into consulting that I experienced the joy of constant improvement and new knowledge.

    If I had to point to one factor responsible for the change it would be interacting with lots of different people. As an employee I was the senior person in my field and had no real peers in my day-to-day worklife. As a consultant, I was (and still am) forced to get out and network, bringing me into contact with different people with different backgrounds, and all very experienced at what they do.

    This is a long-winded way of saying that I think point #4, Attend a Conference, is supremely important. But I wouldn’t limit the activity to just once or twice a year. Attend lots of conferences. Or other business meetings. Or create your own.

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  4. [...] of the industry but at least be in the loop of current news. It was the article that speaks about professional development for web worker that caught my interest, and I found myself reading the article in no [...]

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  5. [...] Web Worker Daily » Blog Archive Professional Development for the Web Worker « These are officially professional development tips for web workers, but I see it for libraries, too. I mean, it’s just generally good practice to read professional literature/blogs, learn something new every year, speak at workshops, go to conferences, a (tags: todo professional.development) [...]

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  6. I agree, it is very important to keep skills up to date. Just a few months of being complacent can turn a person into a dinosaur :-)

    I have found barcamps to be a very good alternative to conferences. Many speakers talk of their experiments with the latest and greatest technology.

    Speaking at user groups is also a nice idea. I also believe that blogging is a very nice way to keep up with news, create a virtual community of peers and learn new things. I have found reflection and writing to be very useful when I am learning new things, and blogging gives a very quick and easy way to do that.

    @Dan: You mentioned that you offer lower rates to clients if the job offers professional development. I do something similar but a bit differently. I offer the same rate, but do the learning on my (non-billable) time. This helps me keep the rate constant and also stay out of negotiation cycles.


    Regards
    Parag

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  7. [...] was a former teacher, and I love me some Professional Development.  This article on Web Worker Daily has a good bit of information about Professional Development opportunities for [...]

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  8. I agree, and as an owner of a Micro ISV, I think “reading the news” and “learning a new skill” (or in my case technology) are the most essential and attainable. The user groups and conferences can work as time allows, but acheiving professional development is much easier when scheduled into a daily routine or specific project.

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  9. [...] post was spawned by reading this article from Web Worker Daily about professional development for the web worker set. Great site, by the way, Web Worker Daily [...]

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  10. Even if you’re a corporate worker reading this, observe #1 and #2, and adapt #5 to read “Is what I spent the last year doing marketable? Did I advance or stay still in my knowledge? If I quit right now would anyone want to hire me based on what I really know? Could I take what I know and successfully go freelance with it?”

    I neglected to do those things in my first full-time job, and ended up building 4 years of unmarketable “knowledge” which did me no good when I needed to find a new employer.

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